Holy water isn’t meant to extinguish flames like these.

I check the address on my GPS. These old country routes are sometimes finicky, but there are no homes for miles, only grapes. This is the place. I push aside the vials in my pocket, grab my cell phone, and dial 9-1-1. Slowly, I drive past a dusty mailbox and along a dirt driveway lined with almond trees in full bloom. In front of me, an old ranch house, white with blue trim, and a couple Subarus parked out front. Half the house cackling with fire.

Thick ash cuts through the blooming flowers. I struggle to breathe, even from this distance, even with the fire confined to half the home.

The operator asks my address. I flip over my liturgy book and read the words hastily scribbled onto the back cover. Yellow Post-it, blue ink. “49 Orchard Ln, Clarksburg, CA 95622. And it’s a client’s home. Not mine.”

“Is there anyone inside?” she asks.

“Maybe? I was supposed to meet a Mr. Shrif at three.”

“Are there cars parked out front?”

“Yes. One.”

“The fire department is on its way,” she says.

I am close enough now I can feel the heat. So close I can practically see inside.

She continues, “ETA fourteen minutes. In a location this secluded, that’s the best we can do.”

I feel guilty. Like, maybe I should have brought more vials. Or maybe I should have scheduled our appointment sooner. Maybe then, maybe, this wouldn’t have happened. Mr. Shrif did say it was an emergency, and I blew him off, because—let’s be real—there are no house blessing emergencies, especially when you’ve lived in a place fifteen years.

But the fire. It’s spreading. Fanning into the garage and up the roof. A totem of soot stretching toward the heavens. And, on the far side of the house, at one of the eastward windows where there is nothing but smoke—I squint—and I see a girl. Just standing there in the haze, completely still. Trapped. But not moving.

“There’s a girl in the house,” I yell, nearly dropping my phone. I shut off my engine and step outside for a better view. Cough.

“Sir, I need you to maintain a safe distance from the house,” the woman says, but I can tell from her voice, which up to this point has been clerical, detached, I can tell from her rushed tone she’s hoping I’ll ignore her. That I’ll go inside. Try and save the girl.

But I don’t. I imagine myself trying—searing my hand on the doorknob, kicking in the door, backdraft bursting out at me, fighting through the soot, and excavating the girl standing at the window. And I feel proud of myself. For what I would have done. What I almost do. But, don’t.


The cop pulls me aside to one of the faraway almond trees where it is easier to breathe, and also, where, shielded from the firetrucks and paramedics, I don’t have a clear view of the house. Not that I want to see. But, after staring at that window north of ten minutes trying to figure out if that really was a girl I saw—briefly—before the flames took in—and after watching the house crumble and sear, after watching with dread for what felt like forever, slack-jawed and dumb, the scene playing before me as if on dusty celluloid, and by that, I mean, as I watched, I wasn’t sure any of it was real, because it couldn’t have been real, because it didn’t feel real, and yet, at the same time, it felt too real—after all this time to be pulled away from the fire you watched grow up, and to leave before seeing it extinguished, leaving now felt premature.

“Walk me again through exactly what happened,” the officer says, standing between me and the house, or rather me and the trucks. Pen and pad in hand.

I tell him about the three o’clock appointment, how I was a little late, but not much. And I share how as soon as I saw the smoke, I called. And, I mention, there was a girl. Maybe. I’m not sure.

“You had an appointment,” the officer repeats, glancing up from his notepad. It doesn’t sound like a question, but I think it is.

I nod, yes.

“What kind of appointment?”

“I was, um…I was going to bless the house,” I say.

The officer smirks. Absolute fucking gallows humor. Tries to conceal it as a cough. Then, settles back into police posture. “You’re clergy,” he says. Another half-question.

“Not exactly,” I say. “I’m ordained, but it’s more like I assume the role of clergy sometimes.”

“What the hell does that mean?” he says.

He removes his sunglasses and stares at me so hard I can practically feel his knee against the back of my neck.

“It’s more like I do odd jobs—weddings, funerals, blessings. Plus palm readings, tarot cards—you name it, I can probably do it. And, if I can’t, I’ll find you somebody who can.” I grab my wallet and hand him my two business cards, one white and blue with Christian iconography and the other with embossed gold over a black background and all sorts of astrological symbols.

“These don’t conflict?” he says, skeptical.

“Why would they?”

I watch him stumble. The whole thing seems to throw him off, which is why I tend to hand people either one or the other. The officer clearly isn’t interested, so I reach back for the cards, but he tucks them into his hip pocket instead. He looks me up and down like he wants to beat the shit out of me. Like I’m some fraud. “And do you have a way to account for your whereabouts between two o’clock and the 9-1-1 call placed a three-zero-six pm?”

Oh, shit.

“Am I a suspect?” I ask.

“Not unless there’s a confirmed crime,” he says.

I sure feel like a suspect.

“Hey, did you hear what I said about the girl?” I ask. “Were you able to find her?”

He just keeps writing. Handcuffs dangling beside the gun at his belt.

“And can anyone confirm your appointment with Mr.— what’s his name? The owner of the house.”

“I do the scheduling myself. There’s a post-it in the car, but that’s it.”

“Please bring me the Post-it,” he says. Stops. Tucks his pad into his pocket. “Actually, I’d like to get it myself if that’s okay. Permission to enter and search the vehicle?”

I nod. Notice a little body camera just above his badge.

“Verbal permission, please.”

“I have Mr. Shrif’s number—here, in my phone. In case you want to call him.”

“Sir, I’m asking for verbal permission to enter and search your vehicle.”

“Sorry. Yes—yeah.” I try to sound natural even though I have nothing to hide.

The officer flashes a picture of the Post-it with Mr. Shrif’s name, address, and the time—3 pm. Then with a gloved hand, he touches the corner of my liturgy book so gently it’s like he believes in it. He turns the page, frowns, turns a few more. There’s nothing there.

Part of trying to seem natural means not watching the officer’s every movement, since, you know, I have absolutely nothing to hide. So I drift a bit right of my car, a clear lane between the two firetrucks—and a view of the house, finally. The place is charred black. Like an imprint of what once was. Half a roof. No door, canted beams where the attic used to be, and the far windowed room reduced to a charred Tetris-shaped pillar of drywall.

The smoke now burns light grey instead of deep black. Flakes of ash rain down the almond trees like pesticide and settle all over my clerical shirt.

Next to the firetrucks sits an ambulance with flashing lights but no siren. Another cop car. And a few pickup trucks parked along the levee, glazed-eyed onlookers hanging out the windows and sitting on hoods, nothing better to do than stop and stare at a distant neighbor’s home engulfed in flames. Something about the bystanders makes me indignant, like they don’t deserve to be here. They weren’t here for the real fire, forty-five minutes ago when the house burned bright. They didn’t see what I saw, but tonight at home or tomorrow when they check into their jobs at the gas station or Walmart, that won’t stop them from talking. The story on their lips is less earned than mine. Because, I’m sure, they’re less traumatized. Just curious.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen my fair share of shit. That’s how I became clergy in the first place—clergy tangential now. Back when I believed in things like love. Grace. But past trauma rarely protects us from new trauma, I’ve found.

The officer moves from the driver’s side of my car to the trunk. He’s jotting down my license plate, probably writing me up for expired tags. But I fear he’s about to charge me with a whole lot more.

Up front, two firemen roll their hoses while two more move about the shell of the house. And, behind the Tetris-pillar, at the hole where there was once a window—where there was once a house—two of the EMTs load a body bag onto a stretcher. The body is too large to belong to the girl in the window. And the bag is zipped, thank God. But my imagination runs with it. Mr. Shrif. His skin the texture of burnt chicken. And his cheek—just a few tendons remaining. Teeth exposed. I don’t have to see inside the bag to know it’s fucked. And also, maybe I am too.

My knees hit the dirt. I don’t know how it happens—it just does. I cry. Then cough. Cry, then cough. And as the EMTs load the stretcher into the back of the truck, I cry some more. Wipe my face with my sleeve. Black char smears across my cheek. And I watch as the EMTs unload two more bags, black, zippers down the middle. Half the size of the last. Bags built for bodies that aren’t yet grown. The girl. And, another.

Someone taps my shoulder. The officer, finished with my car. His radio to his ear. His sunglasses pressed back onto his face. “Follow me,” he says. “You don’t need to see this.”

He holds a ticket half-written for my tags, but he crumples it up and after repeating my phone number back to me says just go. But I don’t leave. I’m afraid to. We stand side-by-side watching the almond trees. The officer pats me on the back and says if the station needs anything else, he’ll call. But, we both hope, he won’t have to.


About the Author

Greg Rapier's work has appeared at places like Dream Pop, The Nervous Breakdown, Variety Pack, and Sky Island Journal, and his work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions. He has degrees in English and film and is working on his doctorate in creative writing and public theology (Yeah, that’s a thing).


Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash